Charles Gaines: Southern Trees
On ViewHauser & Wirth
Charles Gaines: Southern Trees
January 26–April 1, 2023
In 1944, in Charleston County, South Carolina, not far from Boone Hall Plantation, Charles Gaines was born. He lived there until he was five years old and his family moved to Newark, New Jersey. He would go South every summer to visit with his mother’s extensive family until he was sixteen years old. Later in life, having become an artist his practice would fall under the rubric of Analytic Conceptual Art—this means, his works clearly privilege the systemic over the intuitive, the aggregate over the gestalt, and the impersonal over the emotive. To the cursory viewer Gaines’s methodology may appear hermetic and its results obsessive or decorative.
According to an interview with Harmony Holiday in Frieze (#227), in the 1970s other Black artists reproached Gaines for making “white art” because they “They couldn’t figure out how a Black person could make art that didn’t reflect their experience as a Black person.” At the time, Gaines says, he recognized the legitimacy of the question, but he didn’t have an answer. Today this may seem difficult to understand: just because his works are not anecdotal, emotive, or given to representing what may be considered essentially Black themes, this notion that they don’t represent his subjectivity as a Black man cannot be entirely true.
The fact that Gaines’s works are systems-based does not mean they lack associative or analogous meaning, it’s just that these too are encoded into his work. His works in general can be viewed as an example of double-coding—the practice of creating a single text that carries two different messages depending on the frame of reference used to interpret it. From this perspective we may see embedded in Gaines’s works the notion that cognition can be regulated by rules, which affects our conception of individual agency. This in turn affects both our understanding of Gaines’s practice and our reception of his works.
This show’s title, Southern Trees, suggests a complex of possible associations. Such meanings are not a consequence of what Gaines does, but of his source materials and its context. For instance, in the series of triptychs shown on the gallery’s second floor, the central images are photographs of 150-year-old pecan trees. Gaines took these photographs at Boone Hall Plantation, which, if you remember, is close to where he was born in South Carolina. Though none of this is directly referenced in the work, knowing these things might lead one to think of the history of slavery, and the lynching of Black men throughout the Southern States in the post-Reconstruction era, which is just about the time these trees were planted. While this is a reasonable place to go—indeed, in recent years Gaines, working outside his signature style, has created works that address similar themes—in this case such associative narratives do not encompass the subject and content of these works.
Gaines’s use of systems was meant to repress the role of subjective decision-making in the creative process, not unlike John Cage, Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and various others who used impersonal systems to remove themselves from their works. In that it relieved them of having to make certain decisions, this approach may be understood as a mode of self-erasure on the part of those artists. In Gaines’s case, as a Black man it has other connotations—one need only think of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952). If out of habit one chooses to view Gaines’ works as self-referential, reducing his project to a formalist endeavor, this obliterates the explicit commentaries embedded in his work as well as those texts concerning identity that it may be inserted into.
Using systems consisting of numbers, colors, grids, and rules of his own devising, Gaines quantifies and charts information derived from his photographic sources, usually images of trees or ID-like mug-shots. His system generates fastidious rows of numbers, which map the shape, spatial relationships, and tonality of one or more photographic images. The Southern Trees triptychs consist of a photographic image of a stand-alone tree in situ, a decontextualized black silhouette of that tree, and the encrypted shape of the tree, often lost in an accumulation of other data derived from the forms of all the trees previously depicted in the series. Given the noise to message ratio of the coded image one can only discern the particular tree-form derived from the abstracted silhouette by getting far enough back from the encrypted image for it to visually solidify, the way a pointillist painting does. Consequently, we are simultaneously looking at the image of an object and its means of representation.
To establish the individual function of each component and their inter-relatedness Gaines has established a win-lose economy. This he uses as a framework to address the issue of how a thing and its representation correspond to one another, which in turn raises questions concerning how the presence of the photographic image affects not only our comprehension, but also our perception, of his art. This may not hold true for all of his works, however. For instance, installed on the gallery’s fifth floor is a series of large plexiglass boxes in which the viewer must gaze through silhouetted photographic fragments of branches that float in front of a color-coded rendering of a tree. Compared to the triptychs, in these works the relationship between photographic fragments and the encoded image seems arbitrary—purely aesthetic. Yet, now that he is working with specifically Black themes we may conclude that Gaines’ disregard for his own systems and procedures encodes something about his sense of himself as a Black man.
By abstracting Gaines’s processes and its operation we can tie his game of building and deploying systems to the real world—they are models of the way in which the particular loses its identity and becomes part of a category. Gaines’s works, then, function as analogies whose subject is the construction and discernment of identity. The structures he imposes transform and encode his source images, finally substituting for the underlying structures that socially and politically organize our daily lives—and by this counter-intuitive gesture Gaines has always expressed his subjectivity as a Black man.